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August 2005
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October 2005

Sept. 30, 2005

For heaven's sake, people, go to funerals.

FunflowersThey will help you understand life and how precious it is. They will help you understand the value of religious ceremony and ritual done well. They will help you express, by your mere presence, your gratitude for the life of the person being commemorated.

A few days ago, I attended the funeral of an old friend, a former colleague at The Kansas City Star, Charles W. Hucker, who died of cancer at age 58 (two years younger than I am). It was held at an Episcopal church in Kansas City, and was full of the liturgy, stirring music and moving words that make funerals so valuable and so different from almost anything else we experience in this culture.

The homily -- a eulogy, really -- was offered by Charlie's daughter, Anne. It was full of love and honesty and respect and tenderness. Where else but at a funeral can you find such amazing words from and about family?

OK. End of sermon. But, please, don't miss any funeral you have a legitimate reason to attend. It's where truth and life and love are celebrated in ways rarely available in our culture.

See my About page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Sept. 29, 2005


While we ponder yesterday's indictment of Rep. Tom Delay, the House majority leader, perhaps it's time to remind ourselves of a couple of things he has said about President Bush's so-called Faith-Based Initiative:

"I know there are some people that are worried about the faith-based initiative that the president supports. And most of the distress is about that, 'We don't want the federal government coming into our business.' Well, my answer to that is, don't accept the money. But I see it as a great opportunity to bring God back into the public institutions of the country. God has been removed from all of our public institutions."

He also said the initiative would be a way of "standing up and rebuking this notion of separation of church and state that has been imposed upon us over the last 40 or 50 years. You see, I don't believe there is a separation of church and state. I think the Constitution is very clear. We have the right and the freedom to exercise our religion no matter what it is anywhere we choose to do it. We have an opportunity to once again get back into the public arena."

No separation of church and state? Hmmmm.

* * *

Earlier this month, when I was out of town, I heard a sermon by a Protestant minister that was good in many ways but seemed to me to fall into the old trap of using the Apostle Paul and other New Testatment thinking to denigrate Judaism, at least by implication.

Jewchris1_2So I wrote a note to the pastor later and told him I didn't think it was necessary to say there was something wrong with Judaism as a prelude for saying there's something right with Christianity. I want to share some of your correspondence because I think it raises an important point about interfaith relations and because I think it showed how to discuss such things with civility. I wrote to him this:

". . .it seems to me that Paul - the apostle to the Gentiles (he was always writing to them, not writing to Jews) - has been unfairly used as a warrant for the kind of criticism of the law (and, by implication, Judaism) that the church perpetuates. (The law, when given was really an act of grace, I believe.) I've come to agree with Pauline scholars who believe it's not necessary to believe there must be something wrong with Judaism for there to be something right with Christianity. My reading of things tells me God has never abrogated the covenant with the Jews."

In response, the pastor -- a sincere and decent man who, I think, simply didn't think deeply about how his words might have been understood, wrote this back:

"Clearly I somehow communicated unclearly. I never intended to denigrate the law. Along with you, I have high regard for the law of Moses and believe it is given to us for our wholeness and well-being. Jesus himself was clear that the law stands - he doesn't do away with it. What I intended in the 'sound byte' ('If the world could have been saved through bookkeeping, it would have been saved through Moses, not Jesus') was to say that, given the law, if our welcome into God's Kingdom depended on our ability to obey/fulfill the law (thus the 'bookkeeping' comment) then we are each and all without a ticket and out of luck. The only way we make it in is through grace because we are woefully inept at following the law.

"Anyway, I suspect that once I made my Moses vs. Jesus comment, it was enough of a red flag  for you that perhaps you didn't hear the sentences immediately following. Here's a quote from what I said Sunday morning: 'You see... if the world could have been saved by bookkeeping, it would have been saved by Moses, not Jesus. The law is good and fine and necessary - it is for our well-being.
And the law is not to be done away with - Jesus himself said so. (my emphasis) But the trouble is... based on the law and our ability to follow it, nobody makes it in.' "

He also said that he recently told his congregation that "God does not renege on God's promises," so Jews "are still  in covenant with God and God will be faithful to them and the covenant. We had best not jump to any conclusions that Jewish folks are 'lost' unless they 'come to Jesus.' "

And I, in turn, replied this way:

"I think what most bothers me about this whole Jewish-Christian dynamic is the assumption that Jews also believe their salvation is dependent on what you call bookkeeping. There is, to be sure, an emphasis in Judaism on keeping the law. But, in the end, Judaism also is a religion of grace (though, to be sure, even some Jews I know have trouble with that concept). (Blog readers: Sorry for the blue type below. The Typepad system is ignorning my urgings to turn it black.)

"One helpful way to think about this comes from Huston Smith’s brand new book, The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition. I’ll quote a few sentences:

“'By responding to God’s invitation, the Jews had risen to a spiritual level that was head and shoulders above that of their neighbors. However, it was their religion; ethnically grounded in lineage, language and history, it was not for other people. To this day Jews accept converts but do not seek them.

“'Thus it is as if God thought: The achievement of the Jews is too important to be kept to themselves. It needs to break out of its shell and be made available to the world at large. I will see to it that that is done.'

"I affirm your words to your congregation that God has not broken his covenant with the Jews. But I wonder if in some sense that conclusion is in conflict with the characterization of Jews trying to rely on their adherence to bookkeeping. Muslims, too, have an emphasis on what we Christians might call 'works righteousness,' but most well-informed Muslims would say that, in the end, they are completely dependent on God’s mercy. I think such an acknowledgement for all of us provides a way to find the kind of useful common ground we so desperately need."

I'd be interested in your response to this back-and-forth. Did either of us shed any light on this subject?

See my About page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Today's religious holiday: Michael and All Angels (Christian).

Sept. 28, 2005

Labels, as I've often said, hide more than they reveal.

EvangelicalsStill, sometimes they are useful as a shorthand way of identifying groups of people who share some characteristics -- as long as we keep in mind that they are not exhaustive descriptions of everyone in the group.

Religious labels (and religious photographs, like this one) tend to be especially dangerous because they can mislead people about what others believe and can dismiss (or affirm) people for reasons that bear little relation to reality.

I was intrigued recently when the Barna Group, a research and media development organization in southern California, did another of its religious surveys and, for its purposes, defined two terms for Christians in interesting ways. "Born again Christians" were defined as "people who said they have made a 'personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today' and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior." Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as born again. Rather, the pollsters did that later based on responses.

The other term the Barna folks defined was "evangelicals," who were identified as a "subset of born again Christians." But to be evangelical, according to Barna, means meeting seven other conditions:

1. Saying their faith is very important today.

2. Contending they have a personal responsibility to share their beliefs about Christ with non-Christians.

3. Saying Satan exists.

4. Believing salvation is possible only through grace, not works.

5. Believing Jesus lived a sinless life on Earth.

6. Saying the Bible is completely accurate in all its teachings.

7. Describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful deity who created the universe and still runs it today.

Again, respondents were not asked to identify themselves as evangelical.

So, what do you think? Is that a fair description of evangelical Christians today? What's left out? What's there that shouldn't be? Does this description fit you or people you know? Barna says that based on its defintion, there are 15 million adult evangelicals in the U.S. now.

See my About page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Sept. 27, 2005

On a recent Sunday afternoon, about 40 teen-agers -- equally divided among Christians, Muslims and Jews -- gathered at a Kansas City church to participate in a workshop called "Peace by Piece: Getting to Know the Other," led by performance artist and storyteller Noa Baum (pictured here).

NoabaumI was there to start things off with a story and to encourage the young people to take seriously what they were about to do. In my experience, it's only when fear can be broken down by giving people a chance to look other people -- people of different backgrounds -- in the eye and speak with them that peace can break out and fear relieved.

So I was really grateful that Sheila Sonnenschein, a local Jewish activist, worked hard to organize this gathering with the help of the International Visitors Council of Greater Kansas City.

I wish there were a way to replicate this kind of experience for all young people. Without the opportunity to know and understand people different from ourselves, we can lock ourselves into a prison of fear and ignorance. And that's no place to live. It leads only to the kind of trouble we've seen engulf much of the world in the flames of religious violence.

So I encourage you to do what Sheila did -- look for ways to make this dialogue happen where you are.

See my About page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Sept. 26, 2005

I get to do a little bragging today, but only in the interests of noting the good news that some people care enough about journalistic coverage of religion that they hand out prizes.

Award_2I've just learned that I've won a second-place award (pretend the ribbon you see here is red, not blue) this year from the American Academy of Religion for the "Best In-Depth Reporting on Religion" by media outlets with circulations of 100,000 or more. In the past, I've place both first and third in AAR competitions.

The American Academy of Religion is made up religious scholars, many of whom teach religion as an academic subject in secular universities.

One of the pieces I submitted eventually will be posted on the AAR Web site. When I put this blog entry together, I'd been told it would be the piece I'm sharing here with you today, which is this Kansas City Star column that I wrote in August 2004. But I've just learned that instead of this piece, the AAR Web site will feature a piece I wrote about new directions in research on the Apostle Paul. So you can go to the AAR site to find that and now you can read this one here:

Headline: Ritual provides a place to contain pain
Source: Kansas City Star
Publication Date: August 21, 2004
Page: F14

DENNIS, Mass. - Zealous wind off Nantucket Sound shoves its way across the sand of Earle Road Beach here, causing the minister's white robe and green stole to ripple and twist.

This wedding, it occurs to me, is why we have ritual, tradition, repeatable liturgy. Dependable ceremony was invented especially for hard and wonderful times like this. It helps us know a little of what to expect when everything seems loose, in play and eager to ambush our wounded but hopeful hearts with wild emotions.

The bride today is Haven, the widow of my nephew Karleton. Almost three years ago terrorists killed Karleton and so many others by slamming the plane he was riding into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

It has been an astonishing time, full of grief over the loss of Karleton but with joy over the birth of Karelton's and Haven's second son eight months after 9/11. It also has been full of hope for Haven's healing and, finally, of the bittersweet but joyful acceptance of the fact that she would marry Dan, whose own sister lost her husband at the World Trade Center that malevolent day.

Today we have gathered under bright Cape Cod skies to embrace the new couple - new family - and to wish them well as they move into a future that we and they know offers no guarantees. And as we witness the ceremony, I'm glad that religion provides the comfort of form, of known words, of boundaries within which both our pain and our joy can find expression but be contained.

One of the first things the minister says is that both Dan and Haven want all of us to observe a moment of silence to remember and honor the ones we have loved so much but who are now gone. As we do that, seagulls hover overheard in the swift air and waves detonate on the sand. Still, we move inside that rumbling, restless silence and offer thanks for the ones we've lost - thanks still colored by a deep desire to shout, "Damn! Damn! Damn!"

The vows, the rings, the music, the homily, the kiss - all of it is choreographed so as not to alarm anyone with unwelcome surprises. My sister and her husband - Karleton's parents, Barbara and Jim - are sitting next to my wife and me, and I know they are grateful for the role ritual is playing today.

"The older I get, the more tradition I want," Barb told me not long ago.

So even though it will be hard, we will follow the family tradition and sing made-up songs - one silly, one serious - to Dan and Haven at their wedding reception. This will be the 11th time my sisters and our families have done such goofy singing at family weddings (it started when Karleton and Haven were married), and Haven insisted it wouldn't be a true wedding without it.

So we are gathered this weekend to talk, laugh, hug and sing our songs. All of this is liturgy (which literally means the work of the people), and it has to do with sacrament, an outer sign of some inner meaning, but a sign that brings about what it signifies.

The meaning for us is that even though Karleton's life has ended, ours hasn't, Haven's hasn't, their sons Jackson's and Parker's haven't. So, like other 9/11 families, we will set our faces to the future and, using ceremony, tradition, ritual and the liturgy of ordinary time, will make new lives for ourselves.

It's not that any of us can - or ever would - forget Karleton. Rather, it's that we know we are powerless to undo his death. If we wallow in this biting, awful loss, we would dishonor Karleton's lively, loving, exploratory spirit that was always eager to see what both the moment at hand and tomorrow might offer.

So we have come to rest our souls in the promise and comfort of ritual and tradition. It is how people get through birth, through worship, through marriage and the passages of aging, through death and the creation of lives without people who have died.

Sometimes ritual - especially the religious variety - becomes empty and meaningless, rote and without the pulsing vitality and rhythm that first gave it life.

But at its best, ceremony and tradition can carry us through the narrow channels that our hearts fear to enter. Which is how we are able to surround Dan and Haven with love today and help launch them on a new journey that will keep them connected to our lives.

If ritual can't help a family reconstitute itself, it is like salt that has lost its savor and must be thrown out and trampled under foot.

See my About page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Sept. 24-25, 2005, weekend

As regular readers of this blog know, occasionally I share here some of the marvelous and intriguing correspondence I get from readers of my Kansas City Star column.

Bible_2One of those columns a few weeks ago suggested that the start of the school year was a good time to have a crisis of faith and to throw your hard religious questions on the table. Most of the response I got indicated readers were in tune with what I was proposing. I appreciated those words but was most engaged by an 84-year-old man who accused me of indicting unbelievers for not asking faith questions and then said it was an unjust criticism.

"I have been asking faith questions since 1957," he wrote, "but have never received a logical answer to any whatsoever. Often I have received no answer at all."

He said he grew up Catholic but began questioning what he called "implausibilities in Christian doctrine." I think you'll enjoy some of his questions:

* How could Adam and Even, before Original Sin, have been happy, in view of their privations? Being, in the beginning, innocent, they certainly did not deserve sadness imposed by the hand of an allegedly just and benevolent God. Yet they were without clothing, without shelter, without soap, without toilet or toilet paper, without razor or nail clipper, without hand tools, without insect repellant."

* How was Noah's ark constructed by people who didn't even have a saw?

* In the Genesis story, how did the Serpent transport himself to the Tree of Knowledge, given that at that pre-Original Sin time he was not yet being punished (by being made to crawl) for participating in sin?

* It could be seen that Jesus had left Earth on ascension day, but it could not be seen on Earth that he had arrived in Heaven. There was no radio in those days. So how was the news of Jesus' arrival transmitted to Earth?

* After Lazarus rose from the death, did anyone ask him to describe the existence beyond the grave?

* Did Jesus ever mention the existence of continents and islands that mankind seemed not to know about?

I don't know how you'd have answered him, but here's part of what I said in reply:

". . .your questions are based on the assumption that the Bible provides information that is literally true in all ways -- historically, scientifically, socially, economically and on and on. That is a faulty presupposition. . .

"Instead of looking at the Bible as literal history (there is some of it in there, but there is also much else), I think it is helpful to read the Bible while asking this question: What is this story trying to tell me about God and God's relationship to humanity? When you do that, you don't need to ask ultimately meaningless questions about Adam and Eve's nail clippers. Instead, you get to serious stuff about who God is and why God would have created a world in which evil is possible.. . .

"If I were you, my temptation would be to set aside all those questions and read the gospels of the New Testament (and the book of Romans), hoping there to be introduced to God through Jesus and hoping to find a relationship with that God, who is always searching for you."

His seven-page letter and my two-page response said much more, but that was the essence. Is what I said something like what you might have said?

See my About page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Sept. 23, 2005

If you live in or anywhere near Kansas City, please try to clear your calendar for this Tuesday evening, Sept. 27, and attend the "Kansas City Helps" special concert at Starlight Theater.

KchelpslogoIt's designed to raise funds for and welcome the 4,000 or so Gulf Coast residents who have relocated to our area after Hurricane Katrina. You can get tickets (they started out as little as $15 but thanks to great underwriting support they're now free, though all donations are accepted) by going to the Kansas City Helps link I've given you or my calling 816-363-7827. And you'll hear all kinds of music from all kinds of groups, including representatives of the Kansas City Symphony.

To me, the wonderful thing about this effort is that it is involving people of many religious traditions. The list of clergy and other faith community leaders signed on to help includes Presbyterians, Jews, Pagans, American Indian Spirituality followers, Southern Baptists, American Baptists, United Methodists, Christians-Disciples of Christ, Unity, Vedanta, Sufis, Hindus, Baha'is, Episcopalians, Muslims, United Church of Christ, Catholics, Buddhists and others.

The Mid America Assistance Coalition will administer proceeds from the event.

Organizers are looking for additional sponsors, too. Please call John Isenberg at 816-918-3388 or Gayle Krigel at 816-363-5438.

We have new neighbors. Let's do all we can to show them hospitality, a virtue all faiths promote.

See my About page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Sept. 22, 2005


Well, what's just in is the new picture of me here. It was taken by my 3-year-old granddaughter Olivia at the Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, N.Y., the other day. If she can find better models, she may have a future in the picture-taking business.

* * *

One recent evening my wife and I attended a dramatic presentation called "A Land Twice Promised," by Noa Baum.

Land300It was a wonderful -- and wonderfully balanced -- performance of stories that told of the heartache among both Jews and Palestinians because of conflict in the Middle East. Afterward, Noa recommended that we take a look at the Web site for an organization called Just Vision, which seeks to bring Israelis and Palestinians together for dialogue. It's worth your time to look at it.

But before Noa told her stories, the evening began with prayers from religious leaders representing 13 different faith traditions: Native American spirituality, Baha'i, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Christian Science, Pagan, Sufi, Universalist-Unitarian and Vedanta.

I have become convinced that if we don't maintain our own religious identity while we are in dialogue with other traditions, we cannot be honest about our differences and therefore cannot ultimately find any true common ground. So I was curious as to how the Christian (my faith) representative there would pray.

The Rev. Catherine Stark-Corn, associate minister to singles at Country Club Christian Church in Kansas City, did exactly the right thing. She offered a gentle and pleading prayer for peace and ended it with these words: ". . .in the name of Jesus Christ, our redeemer, we pray."

It was not meant to be arrogant and offensive to non-Christians, just as the words in Hebrew by a rabbi and Sanskrit by a Hindu were not meant to offend, nor was it offensive to hear a Pagan representative addressing the sun and moon.

Rather, Catherine's words were meant to reflect the core of who she and other Christians are. There certainly are times when such language might be interpreted as inappropriate (public prayer at public events on behalf of the public), but not when one is trying to represent one's faith tradition in dialogue with others.

See my About page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Today's religious holiday: Mabon (fall equinox) (Wicca).

Sept. 21, 2005

I think I'll take a day off of blogging today to celebrate.

KcstarsiteI first came to work at The Kansas City Star (the image here has to do with our new $199 million printing facility that will open next year) on this date 35 years ago, 1970. I had spent three years as a reporter for the now-defunct Rochester Times-Union in upstate New York before deciding to head back to the MIdwest.

What an amazingly different time that was. We were still in Vietnam, we were just over a year from the first manned moon landing, we didn't know a thing about any Watergate scandal, it had only been 25 years since the Chicago Cubs had been in a World Series and I was having precious little to do with religion. Now it's been 60 years since my Cubbies were in the World Series, we've been through the countless NASA triumphs and disasters, we've experienced so many political scandals I get sick thinking about them and I'm an elder in a Presbyterian church and spend my journalism career writing about faith matters.

I've had the privilege as a reporter and columnist at The Star to help tell some of those -- and many other stories. I don't know how long I'll continue doing that, but some days it's good just to take a breather, look back, listen (as author Frederick Buechner says) to your life and celebrate.

So I'm going to take myself out to lunch today or something and, while I'm at it, express gratitude for the ways these 35 years have blessed me.

See my About page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.

Today's religious holiday: St. Matthew Day (Christian).

Sept. 20, 2005

ALBION, N.Y. -- In my family, we try to teach children about death. One way is by exposing them from an early age to the ceremonies and realities of death.

Roch20The reason we do this is because of our belief -- one I've written about in many columns -- that if we don't understand our own death we can't possibly understand our own lives.

My parents took me to my first wake when I was about 5 years old. Back then, wakes still were held in the homes of the deceased. So we walked across the street to see a woman (she was not related to us) we called Grandma Morse. But I told my mother I didn't want to go because I didn't want to see an old woman naked. (My 5-year-old mind couldn't imagine why dead people needed clothes.)

My mother explained what I would see when I got there and off we went.

When my daughters' maternal grandmother died this summer, both of them had nursing babies and couldn't get away on a day's notice to attend the funeral. So instead we all came here to upstate New York this past weekend to visit the cemetery and to dedicate a tree at their grandmother's church. Their grandfather had died in 2000. When we went to the cemetery, my grandchildren went along. We took the picture you see here.

It will be awhile before they understand much about the visit and about death. But we think it's important not to shield them from all aspects of death. My guess is that one day they will look at this photo and be able to connect their lives to their great-grandparents' lives in a special way. And we think these kids' great-grandparents would have been thrilled to have them plopped atop their headstone.

Parents and grandparents have to be discerning about what children are ready to learn about death, but if you never start teaching them, they wind up as part of America's death-denying culture, and that helps no one.

See my About page to find out how to read online what I've written for The Kansas City Star.